rites

This Latest Eclipse: A Record, Part 1

First part of an eight-part series. Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8

To call this a travelogue is misleading and unwise. I did spend six days journeying through twelve states, most previously visited but barely explored. I did see things I had not seen before. I did learn about people and places hitherto unknown. But in trying to record my memories of each leg and each stop, I have found myself wary of using a certain tone, a certain positioning, given where I went and who I am. The travelogue is often— though not exclusively— a colonial undertaking, emotionally profiting off of some persons other than the writer, whether or not the writer shows any awareness of the colonial history of the locale. In many cases the travelogue proves little more than a form of navel-gazing, too, teaching the reader less about the area and more about the writer who visited.

I don’t really want to write something that falls into such territory. Rather, in some vaguely journalistic or documentarian fashion, I have hoped to transmit my witnessing of a total solar eclipse, which is a momentous celestial event that has only remained possible within a limited portion of this planet’s history; and for full experiential context I will also transmit the preceding and subsequent events. How I got there, what frame of reference I found myself in once the eclipse took place, what I observed in leaving the site. It does so happen that the eclipse happened at a time of peculiar importance, and that I bore witness in a geographic region of equal importance to that time.

With any luck, the act of travel itself will feel incidental to my overall focus. Perhaps, too, my contextual narrative will gaze less at navels, less at “others,” and more at points in history and topography that merit observation on a cosmic scale. As with the principle of relativity, I cannot completely separate the thing I’ve witnessed from my own position as the witness, but well—

Let’s begin. On the morning of Saturday the 19th of August, 2017, I sat myself down in the passenger seat of a sturdy, fairly dependable vehicle, and the man I love and live with— I will call him my husband here, but he is something more and better than that— he sat in the driver’s seat, and we left our home with the intention of reaching Greenville, South Carolina in time for the total solar eclipse projected to occur there on Monday the 21st. It spoils no great mystery to say that we made it there, of course, but after going to several other parts of the country together, this was our first time driving all the way to our destination with no assistance from other people, with our own vehicle, and with the underlying motive completely our own. Not until the past couple of years could we truly afford to spend that amount of time away from our jobs or spend the requisite money to enjoy the trip. We still absolutely do not have the luxury of doing such things whenever we want. I— oh, I’ll hazard to say we— simply knew that because we did barely have the means, we could not shirk the chance to see something extremely perfect happen to the world.

I say “extremely perfect” in a certain way. Maybe it will become clearer as I write more. I am a perfectionist, and perfection is so hard to come by that the few extremely perfect things in this world are equivalent to religious revelations. They are religious revelations in the case of the cosmos. To see the total eclipse was to go on a pilgrimage.

In order to reach the eclipse and in order to leave it, we would need to pass through and spend some time in what most people in the United States still call the South. Such phrasing shouldn’t imply there is anything about the South that is not southern, but if I invoke the South as a delineating term (or the West, for that matter), there are immediate connotations, both helpful and unhelpful. If you mention going to the South to a lot of terribly smug people outside it, or even sometimes inside it, they’re likely to come up with responses such as, “Oh, god, I’m sorry, I hope you survive.”

I cringe at such soundbytes. On the one hand, I’m virulently queer, gender non-conforming, specifically a person with breasts who also gets five o’clock shadow, and I wear lots of unsubtle attire— leather, spikes, low necklines, short hemlines, occult iconography— so in any place with a high concentration of bigotry, evangelical Christianity, and conservative sex/gender standards, no, I don’t feel as safe as I feel in places where there are more people like me. On the other hand, if I had lived in the South in bygone days, I would not have been enslaved or lynched or systematically deprived of my rights on racial grounds, and today I am still not in the highest risk group for being murdered by police, contemporary Klan members, and so forth. I appreciate hearing genuine concern for my well-being down South in light of certain factors, but usually “I hope you survive” means, “I hope you, Mx. Jones, whom I perceive as an Enlightened & Educated Non-Southerner Like Myself, can intellectually survive the stupidity of the Unenlightened & Uneducated South.”

There are wide swaths of Klan territory outside the South. There are cities with ugly, terrible white supremacist pasts across the United States, including my home city of Boston. I knew Christian fundamentalists when I was growing up in New Hampshire. I experience anti-queer, anti-trans violence and ignorance anywhere that I go. Almost every stretch of land in the United States is occupied by settlers who violently stole it from indigenous peoples and who continue to steal from and enact atrocities upon those very real, very alive populations. The South strikes me as having a certain flavor to its racism and its overall patterns of discrimination, and I can’t speak to how some arbitrary example of a black person ought to feel in the South versus anywhere else, but I believe that for me personally to visit the South I am not diving into some uniquely intense grotto of evil. It is simply a unique region on any level.

And because it is a region with particular significance to the history of white supremacism, it seemed like strange timing to venture there only a week after an exceptionally horrific flareup of fascist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. It seemed even stranger that the day we set off, a fascist rally had also been planned in Boston itself. If we could have realistically left any later, I know I would have attended the counter-event; I take some consolation from the fact that I’ve already participated in plenty of similar events for related purposes, and you just can’t do them all. There’s my activist virtue signaling out of the way. We set out on the morning of the 19th. Our first stop on the way to Greenville would be a city slightly less than halfway between: Philadelphia.

D. Llywelyn Jones

To be continued in part 2.

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Rhythms

I took a photo when we made our first coq au vin, not because it was a gourmet dish but because properly it’s a humble dish, even with the wine.

When I last wrote, I was preoccupied by the disruption of rhythms. The death and perversion of seasons, the probably disruption of life on earth. At the time I knew I sounded humorless at best, bombastic at worst, at least to anyone whose feelings weren’t so bleak. In retrospect I abide by every thought, even every word, but all the same, those were only the paths where my mind walked on that particular day, because it was a day meant for such meditations. Since then, life has wound onward for me the same as it’s done for everyone else, and the seasons are not over yet. I don’t pretend to be an expert on resistance, a word I would rather not use because it’s disturbingly insufficient; but from what experience I do have with struggle, in many senses, I can say one component of surviving dark times is to not meditate too frequently.

All of which might be a long way to observe that I should stop berating myself when I don’t write here very often. A lot of what goes here constitutes meditation. I like entertaining the notion of myself as an essayist, and I’ve gladly spent plenty of time on essays in the past, but since the end of January I’ve done many things that I have to do more. Of course, usually when I say I have to do other things, I mean that regretfully. This time, I don’t, and it’s freeing to realize that.

Among the duties that do still distract me, I’ve simultaneously made great strides in the research for my current fiction project, and I’ve been committing myself to other activities of equal personal value. The latter have received my attention for anywhere from months to a couple of years, and results so far include the fact that I’m more connected with the kinds of people and art that matter to me, and most of all, the fact that I’m more connected with the earth.

Rhythms. I have always needed them, so it’s come as no shock that as I finally come to consider myself a real adult I might simultaneously come to recognize the impulse that pushes humans out into the wild. Wild does not mean aimlessness or lack of structure. It refers to authenticity, and in its best moments the term manages not to ironically romanticize itself. Here I should reference Thoreau, or Tolstoy, but at this point I would feel cheap. There aren’t enough stories about women who become witches in the woods. Not the kinds of stories that everyone knows, and when they do, the stories aren’t good enough.

I am hoping to do something that isn’t like the dreams of 19th century colonists and counts. I wonder if it’s closer to the dreams of today’s urban farmers and privileged homesteaders, the people who disconnect from the current systems of production because they have both the awareness and the ability. On most days I can’t help laughing at that archetype of the Brooklynite with the rooftop chicken coop and the indoor greenhouse for homegrown kale, but my real concern lies in how such individuals continue to support exploitative industries (often by starting their own, having as much capital as they do) or blithely further gentrification. Likewise, it discomforts me to discover people “living off the land” as if for subsistence while understanding none of the challenges faced by people who have no choice but to live that way. But I simultaneously believe in the raw impulse, because it’s what keeps giving me purpose.

By no means am I dropping everything in my life to garden and hunt as a recluse. It’s more important to live by a code than to live wildly. Of course, I increasingly suspect that the more wildly I can live, the better I will be at living by my code; but such commitment requires readiness, or it’s no good. I’m still not ready.

So I’m starting just with rhythms. Marking the stations of the sun, with greater devotion than I’ve ever shown. Following the moon. Worship. A kind of worship. Cooking. Keeping a house, not because of rules governing my body, but because it gives me pride to do so.

I can’t imagine these thoughts being altogether easy to follow or terribly interesting. But I have tried for several hours to write here, and this is what I’ve come up with. I’m not going to worry about it. This is just where I am. Rhythms.

D. Llywelyn Jones